Buildings tell stories to Tom Visser. Especially farm buildings. The slope or shape of a burn roof, the width of the clapboards on an old granary, even the pile of ash found under the foundation of an old smokehouse, all mean something to him.

Every farm building has a history, and more often than not the histories of individual buildings help clarify and understand the agricultural history of New England. Likewise, understanding the farming history of New England is vital to any genuine understanding of the region, even today.

When Tom Visser, who is head of the University of Vermont’s Historic Preservation Program, sees a windowless medium-sized barn with a pitched roof, and a pair of large hinged doors that open along its longer side, he immediately suspects he’s looking at a so-called “English” barn, an early type of barn once common across all of New England. A closer look at the way the barn is framed, how its timbers have been shaped, the saw marks on its plank sheathing and other such clues will tell him more — either confirm his at-a-glance designation, or lead him further into the complex history of barn construction.

And that is just the beginning, because every farm building has a history, and more often than not the histories of individual buildings help clarify and deepen understanding of the agricultural history of New England. Likewise, understanding the farming history of New England is vital to any genuine understanding of the region, even today.

Visser, a soft-spoken, man with thinning blond hair and a short beard, doesn’t much look like the building contractor he has been. He brings both practical and theoretical knowledge of farm buildings to the task of researching and re-creating their past, since he has studied the framing of farm buildings and has swung a broadaxe in working on barns himself. Workshops in slate roof repair and masonry conservation are on his resume, along with a degree in business administration from the University of New Hampshire and a Master’s Degree in Historic Preservation from UVM. He seems equally at home lecturing to a group of preservation students or heading up a construction crew.

That combination of the scholarly and the practical carries over into his work in the larger Burlington community as well, where Visser, in addition to being a scholar, is engaged in hands-on planning work. He is chair of the city’s Design Review Board, chair of the Burlington Historic Review Committee, and a member of the local District Environmental Review Commission. Those three posts give him considerable say in the preservation of existing buildings, as well as what new buildings in Burlington will look like, and Tom Visser has not been bashful in speaking out to protect the face of urban Burlington.

When it was suggested last winter that Henry’s Diner, a downtown Burlington landmark familiar to many UVM students and alumni, might be demolished Visser quickly opposed the idea:
“Henry’s Diner is such an institution, and it has played such an important role in the history of downtown; it’s one of those structures that makes downtown Burlington vital.” he says.

About 20 miles south of Burlington, in Ferrisburgh, Visser walks the grounds of the historic farm named Rokeby with an eye practiced in searching for the telling detail that will unlock the mysteries of a barn, a shed, or even a pile of lumber and debris. Rokeby, an important Champlain Valley sheep farm in the nineteenth century, is now a nationally recognized historic site because it was a thoroughly documented stop for runaway slaves on the “underground railroad.” Its owner, Rowland Robinson, was a famous author, illustrator, and Quaker activist, who welcomed fugitive slaves and sheltered them from slave-hunters as they approached Canada and freedom. Robinson was also a compulsive record-keeper and as a result, Rokeby has been called the best-documented Underground Railroad site in the United States.

To Tom Visser, however, it is primarily a killer collection of 19th century farm buildings. He has used Rokeby as he has used the entire state of Vermont, as a working laboratory for students in the UVM Historic Preservation program. Because of its farming traditions, Vermont has working farms and many historic farms like Rokeby where students can get good firsthand experience in historic preservation and learn directly about the kinds of problems and challenges they are likely to face in the field.

A side benefit of Visser’s interest in Rokeby has been the very thorough historic renovation of Rokeby itself. When he first saw the place a decade or so ago, the main house was deteriorating and much of the grounds were covered with vines and undergrowth. Today the lawns and some of the surrounding fields have been cleared, several historic shops and outbuildings have been rebuilt, and the main house has been accurately restored to 19th-century authenticity.

Some of Rokeby’s trustees refer to Visser as “the man who saved Rokeby,” and the current director, Jane Williamson, declares: “His assistance was absolutely critical. If it weren’t for him, Rokeby would be out of business now.”

The Rokeby board called Visser when he was coordinator of the Architectural Conservation and Education Service (ACES) program, a fee based consulting service at UVM. At that point, Rokeby’s roof was leaking, there was water in the basement, and the outbuildings and grounds of the old farm were largely a shambles. Visser came to visit, got out of his car, pulled on his overalls and took out a flashlight. On the spot, he began evaluating the work that needed to be done. A big part of his effectiveness, at Rokeby and elsewhere, has been his warm, low-key manner and his sense of possibility.

“With Tom’s guidance, we did it right,” Williamson says. “He somehow makes you feel that your problems are not insurmountable.”

Visser gave the trustees both the information and the confidence they needed to get the restoration of Rokeby underway. It was a process that has taken more than ten years, but Visser’s clear sense of priorities helped the trustees phase and plan the work. The result is that one of Vermont’s most important historic sites has been saved. It’s probably the best example of a working 19th century farm in Vermont, perhaps in northern New England.The restoration has helped Rokeby’s attendance figures, as tour buses now make the historic farm a regular stop and a fund-raising ice-cream social each fall draws hundreds of people. But for Tom Visser the real value of Rokeby is the enormous amount of information that can be gleaned from its grounds and buildings. “The thing that sets Rokeby apart is that the collections and buildings are all authentic to this property and to this family,” Visser notes. “It’s a wonderful snapshot of 19th century farm life.”

So it made sense to salvage a crumbling toolshed in 1988, even though it took considerable time, work, and money to remove the rotten roof and rafters, replace them, and rebuild much of the rest of the building.

In the process of rebuilding the toolshed, which has evidence of the many different kinds of farming carried on by the Robinsons, Visser and his UVM students developed a new method of using chemical borates as a wood preservative. The research won a grant from the chemical company that manufactured the borates, and it allowed Visser’s class to re-use the wood originally in the building rather than discarding it and rebuilding with new 20th-century lumber. The end result was a more historically complete building — and a new tool in the arsenal of preservation workers. The chemical company was pleased with the outcome, and Visser has delivered professional papers to preser- vationists across the country on the use of borates as a wood preservative.

History usually proceeds at a slow pace — one factual detail at a time. Much of Visser’s work at Rokeby has contributed to the amassing of those factual details by analyzing paint chips, masonry composition, the saw marks on old timbers, and the source of the hand-fired bricks used in some of the buildings. How do all these details fit into the story that Rokeby tells as a whole?

Part of Rokeby’s historic importance, is that the farm encapsulates much of the history of Vermont agriculture — a constant search for a farm enterprise that will pay the bills. Grain was grown and stored in a carefully reconstructed granary on the property, meats were smoked in a nearby smokehouse — and then the ashes from the smokehouse fires were recycled to produce potash — which in turn was used to make soap or sold commercially. The final chapter in Rokeby’s history as a working farm was its 20th-century history as a small dairy farm. A decayed dairy barn too far gone to salvage was the footnote to that part of the farm’s past.

“It’s the old story of the struggling Vermont farmer,” Visser notes. “By the late 19th century, sheep farming in the Champlain Valley was pretty much done. So they had to find another way to make a living.”

Ultimately, Rokeby became a museum — underfunded in its early years, as many Vermont museums are. By adopting the site and restoring its most important buildings, Visser has helped make Rokeby not only more economically viable as a museum, but also has established it as the locus of a vigorous and fascinating research project, one that continues to benefit history students and others interested in 19th-century farming and farm architecture.

Vermont barns and other farm buildings can use a friend like Visser these days, as there are increasing economic pressures on farmers across the country. While farming is still a going concern in the Green Mountains, more and more farms are being sold, subdivided and developed. And Vermont’s pastoral countryside, especially in the area around Burlington, is changing rapidly. Between 100 and 200 Vermont barns are lost annually, victim, most often, to owner neglect. And while there are roughly 30,000 barns left in Vermont, there once were more than 10 times that many. Visser’s 1993 book, A Field Guide to New England Barns and Farm Buildings, is profusely illustrated with photographs of barns and other farm buildings from around New England. Unfortunately for posterity, many of the barns photographed for that book have since ceased to exist.

Visser views barns as the most threatened type of buildings in New England, largely because of the decline of farming and the growth of urban-suburban lifestyles and growth patterns throughout the region.

“Vermont has a nice collection of historic barns,” he says. “But that’s threatened — and we are losing many of the finest examples.”

The real challenge, both in Vermont and region-wide, according to Visser, is what to do with barns that are no longer being used for agriculture today.

Still, Vermont is lucky because farming endured here, despite the Great Depression, which all but eliminated farming in most of the rest of New England. Because farming continues in Vermont, barns are faring better here, Visser says. He notes that silos — a mark of mid-20th-century agriculture, are rarely glimpsed in most of New Hampshire and southern New England, but remain commonplace throughout Vermont. Often a complex of farm buildings here will contain examples of barns going back to the 1780s and 1790s. That’s a historic resource of great value, he noted, and an educational resource as well.

“It presents an opportunity for graduate students to learn by doing hands-on projects,” he said. Visser is uniquely qualified to lead many of those projects because of his years of practical, hammer-in-hand work in historic preservation and restoration. An associate professor of Historic Preservation in UVM’s History Department, he was named interim director of the Historic Preservation Program in 1994.

Visser had large shoes to fill as director of the program. He followed the founder of UVM’s Historic Preservation program and a major player in Vermont historic preservation, the ebullient, charismatic Chester Liebs. Those involved with preservation work in Vermont say that Visser — a quieter, lower-profile personality — brings his own depth of experience and breadth of knowledge to the position.

The aim of the program is to train students to assume professional positions in the growing field of historic preservation, and Visser says that his greatest satisfaction as a teacher is to see his students spread their wings and establish themselves.

One thing that becomes clear in any extended conversation with Tom Visser is his belief that Vermont’s historic buildings are valuable in many ways. Buildings are more than simply shelter from Vermont’s implacable climate. They are also expressions of culture, they can be beautiful, and they often embody a community’s past and its hope for the future.

“Historic buildings are important to the identity of this state,” he says, “they’re also important to the tourist industry and important to researchers. But first and foremost, they’re a part of our identity as Vermonters.”

Tom Slayton ’63 lives in Montpelier, Vt. and is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. His commentaries are heard on Vermont Public Radio.